James Kincaid began his conscious life as an electrical engineer, a very bad one, and then turned, in desperation, to teaching and writing. He has published many (too many) academic and non-fiction books, along with voluminous scholarly articles. More to the point, he has out there in print and in space over 30 stories and four novels, most recently LOST, YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, and WENDELL AND TYLER (3-part series). He taught for years at University of Southern California and is now at University of Pittsburgh. He welcomes any comments, questions, blistering attacks: email@example.com.
You Win Some
“Is this Justin?”
“Is this Justin?”
“Wanna see my birth certificate? I can run it right over.”
“Something wrong? You’re screeching. I thought you were your sister.”
“Anybody on the extension?”
“Is there anybody on the extension, Justin?”
“Who’d be on the extension? I’m the only one here, like always after school.”
“Would you check?”
“You worried the cat’s listening in?”
“Listen, you gotta promise me not to say a word about this.”
“A word about what?”
“OK. What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“I oughta be able to keep that promise.”
“I don’t mean I can’t tell you ever.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I mean I can’t tell you right now.”
“It hasn’t happened yet?”
“Don’t ask questions. Just promise. Did you check the extension?”
“I’ll do it now. There, I did it.”
“You did not.”
“I can see it from here.”
“You want me to promise I’m not recording this call?”
“I never thought of that.”
“Son of a bitch, Marcus.”
“You won’t breathe a word of this, right?”
“What a line: ‘breathe a word of this.’ You been watching old movies?”
“This is no laughing matter.”
“It’s not a matter at all. What are you talking about?”
“I don’t think the phone’s safe. Should have thought of that.”
“Well, you can’t think of everything, Marcus. And yes, I promise to let them torture me and steal my girlfriend before I talk.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend. Can we meet someplace?”
“Meet someplace? Your house, my house? Wait, I know. Not safe. How about we go up on the trail, half way up the mountain?”
“Why’d you say that?”
“Because–oh hell, Marcus, meet me at the playground. I’ll be the one with the padlock on his lips.”
“You think it’s safe, Marcus? Maybe the monkey-bars are bugged.”
“This is serious, Justin.”
“I couldn’t bring it along, though.”
“It wouldn’t be safe.”
“Of course I don’t see. Bring what along? What wouldn’t be safe?”
“Shhh. The money.”
“That I found–on the trail.”
“Oh, THAT money. Wait, you found money on the trail? What trail? How much money?”
“Mt Wilson Trail. About an hour ago. Maybe longer.”
“I’m not sure. I counted real fast. $970,000, I think.”
“I’m not lying.”
“I need your help.”
“I mean it. You helped me out a lot last week with Todd and last year too.”
“I’m good at getting my ass kicked by bullies you fuck with, yeah. What’s that have to do with money?”
“You’re my friend. Justin.”
“Of course, but you don’t need to go on saying it.”
“You know but you did it. So, tell me what you’re talking about– and don’t tell me to keep quiet, or I’m out of this geeky little-kid place.”
“Wanna do the see-saw, Justin?”
“I should’ve let Todd have a go at you.”
“OK. I found this money in a big bag on the Mt. Wilson trail, the part that’s closed off as unsafe–you know, where the rock-slide was.”
“You were up there by yourself, dumb ass?”
“Yes, DAD, and I know it was ever-so-fucking dumb. Now can I go on?”
“I already said. I found this sack of money. I slipped a little, kind of fell, dislodged a rock and there was this sack, filled with money.”
“Yeah, so I took it.”
“Where is it now?”
“At home, inside my closet on the floor.”
“You gotta move it.”
“Fuck, Justin, you think?”
A passer-by would have noticed nothing unusual: the two boys were older than ordinary playground kids, but maybe they were bored, giving their old haunt a go until embarrassment took over. Truth was that they’d mounted the teeter-totter so as to stay alert in their ups-and-downs to the surrounding areas, while appearing natural–not at all like kids discussing how to deal with a million dollars.
Though Marcus was the one who had found the sack stuffed with hundred-dollar bills in neat $10,000 wrapped packets, 97 of them, it soon seemed to both of them a mutual find–and problem–especially as this windfall began shifting in their minds away from a “discovery” to dangerous “theft.” Who had left the money there? Why? Were they morally right or within the law or wise or safe to keep it? What should they do now?
Neither mentioned telling parents or police, the two being linked in their minds: “You just take that money right down to the. . . .”
The first problem: stashing the bag, not a small one, somewhere safe, which Justin’s closet sure wasn’t. Solved pretty easily.
“I know, Justin. Put it back where it came from, sort of.”
“Right. On the same trail. Off the path a little, so no footprints.”
“They’ll never suspect that.”
“Hide it in plain sight.”
“Exactly, though not exactly.”
“There’s good places about a mile up, all those rocks.”
“Rain we’ve had lately will help. No dirt on the rocks, no marks.”
“Perfect. You’re an old hand at this.”
“I’ve been sneaking all my life. Should we both go?”
“More chance of screwing up.”
“So you do it, Justin. In case I made boot marks or something the rain didn’t erase–they won’t be looking for yours.”
And that’s what they did, or Justin did. They kept themselves from celebrating, though it was a temptation. The money might be safe– possibly. But were they? And, even if they might be for now, what would they do with money, never mind how much, they could not access, much less spend.
“I know, Marcus. Talk to Mr. McClellan.”
“So do you.”
“Why did you boys come to me, for Christ’s sake?”
“Because we trust you.”
“You know I’m obliged to report this. Otherwise, I could lose my job.”
“You could pretend we never told you.”
“You mean, lie.”
“You guys are something. Holy Hell.”
“Why do you have to report it, anyhow?”
“Any illegal activity. . . .”
“What we did was find money. That illegal?”
“No. Not reporting it sure is.”
“If I find a quarter on the street and keep it, that gonna land me in prison?”
“Justin, you didn’t find a quarter.”
“What makes the difference? We didn’t steal it.”
“Hmm. I guess I really don’t know. It’s not your money. I know, I know, neither’s the quarter. Let me think.”
He did think and came up with nothing. Then he checked the Internet, which, as always, gave him several sets of firm and wholly contradictory assurances: tell the police, leave a note at the spot, call an attorney, keep it. Most sites maundered on about finding a wallet and identifying the owner, picking up cash in a store and alerting the manager, recognizing that laws varied by state and calling your very own attorney general. Finally, he found an essay by “Jeff “(sounded official) discussing many scenarios that didn’t apply, finally winding round to “cash in a public place.” On this point, Jeff was clear and persuasive:
If there is no identification and I’m in a public place, like a sidewalk or a park, I pocket the money. There is no simple or effective way to return the money in this situation because there is no effective “lost and found.” I view it as owner’s irresponsibility and feel no guilt about pocketing it. Of course, if someone returns while I’m still there and is searching for the money, I’ll ask them what they’re looking for and if they tell me, then I’ll give them the money that I found.
Seemed reasonable, maybe. He arranged a meeting with the boys to talk it over.
“What do you think, kids?”
Justin and Marcus agreed that Jeff made a lot of sense, seemed ready to leave it at that. Then Marcus cut loose:
“I have a few questions, Mr. McClellan.”
“Shoot. Oops, that’s not the best term in our situation.”
“Who’s Jeff? I know, you said he had a website; but he doesn’t seem to say anything about it being legal.”
“Well, Marcus. . . .”
“Also–sorry, Mr. M– even if he knows the law, isn’t he talking about little bits of money? Shouldn’t we check with the police or something”?
Before McClellan could respond, Justin broke in, “That ship has sailed. Call the police and you know where that money will end up. Jeff don’t know dick, I suppose, but he’s as good as anybody, since those who know will just fucking take the money from us, right Mr. M.”
“I imagine so. I did try to find out where money seized in drug busts goes, but that runs into the same problem. The officials are close-mouthed about it, so if you try to find out from them they’ll wonder why you’re asking. Leaves us in the dark, unless you want to put the money back.”
“Fuck that,” said Justin, then, “Sorry about the ‘fuck,’ Mr. M.”
“Yeah,” said McClellan, “and that ship has sailed too. Try to put it back and you run worse risks than the police pose. Where do you suppose that money comes from?”
“A birthday present to a mountain man, got dropped on the path and burrowed itself under a rock.”
“Right, Marcus. We all know this is criminal loot, drug money maybe, and that whoever put it there isn’t whistling it bye-bye. They’re looking for it, and know how to look better than any cops.”
“You suppose, Mr. M? Like we hadn’t thought of that.”
“Let’s try to be civil. You two little shits got me into this, remember.”
“And we do appreciate your help, Mr. M. Don’t pay any attention to Justin. You know how he is.”
“Not until recently. Marcus, did you see anybody when you were up there?”
“Anybody at all? Think hard.”
“Yeah, I did. A guy and his kid– I guess it was his kid.”
“Well, let’s hope it was his very own. Anybody else?”
“Not in the marked-off, illegal place. The guy and his kid weren’t there either. But wait. There was this group of women, exercising together, I imagine.”
“OK. That it, Marcus?”
“No, there was a guy by himself.”
“Glad you saved that for last. What did he look like?”
“He had on this trench coat, big scar on his face, a shiv in his hand.”
“You’re as bad as Justin.”
“So there wasn’t any guy?”
“Yes, there was. Just a guy.”
“How far from the marked-off area.”
“Maybe half a mile. He said, ‘Hi’ and asked me if I was going to the top. He was on the way down.”
“Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”
“If he had the same parrot on his shoulder and said AARRGGHH.”
“Damn, Marcus. Do you kids have any idea what you are up against? I don’t mean to scare you, but there may have been a camera with a trip there by the money, or they may even have had a telescope trained on the site with a recorder. You imagine they would put nearly a million dollars there without some security?”
The boys fell silent, McClellan instantly feeling like a bully. Well, he hadn’t asked to be part of this and. . . . Try as he might, he couldn’t walk away from his involvement. Nothing for it now but to help these two boys, children.
“You know, Mr. M, I don’t think they’d have put a camera there. It’d be just one more thing to attract attention. As for a telescope, I imagine that could be, but it’s a squirrely place where I found it and I don’t know where they could have put a telescope so as to see it. Maybe. I guess they could have done that. You think?”
“Nah, kids. I don’t think that.”
But he did.
Two days later they had advanced not an inch beyond this point, which was nowhere. The money, they assumed, was secure in its new mountain hiding place, parents and everyone else but the trio, the now-frightened trio, in the dark. At least that’s what they figured, hoped.
Then it happened. Marcus hadn’t been home from school more than ten minutes when the phone rang:
“Who is this?”
“Who is this? You called me.”
“Who were you calling?”
Marcus wasted no time phoning Justin and, then, McClellan, who was at first more nettled than worried. Then he sensed the boy’s fear, told Marcus to get Justin and meet him at school next day: back door, by the delivery station, he’d let them in.
“You boys want to get out from under all this, give the money to the police? Tell them you found it today?”
“No,” both said. Despite being ready to pee themselves with fright, they were not going to abandon this exciting tale they found themselves in because of a wrong number.
“OK. I kind of admire you, though I think you don’t recognize what a chance you’re taking.”
“We know, Mr. M, but we don’t want to quit now.”
“Quit? I see, sort of. What do you want to do?”
“We’ve talked about it, Marcus and me, and we were wondering about leaving with the money, getting the hell out of here.”
“Justin, you simply can’t. Where would you go? How would you live and with whom? Besides, it’s crazy. You’re both, what, fourteen?”
“We could support each other, me and Marcus.”
He paused, struck by whatever it was the kids had together, and for a moment wondering if maybe that wouldn’t be enough for them to draw on, survive. But that was crazy. To what remote land could they flee and survive? And how would he feel serving a thirty-year prison term for aiding and abetting?
Marcus put his hand on McClellan’s own, as if to comfort him, protecting him from the dark and all the demons hiding there.
“How about we figure another way for you boys to keep the money, evade the mob, stay here?”
Both looked at him as if he were, at last, on their side. Justin spoke first:
“Here’s how I see it: there’s got to be ways we can put the money somewhere, a foreign place like a bank. You can do that for us, Mr. M.”
He had no idea he could accomplish any such thing, but he smiled. What was he doing?
“The big problem,” Justin continued, “is the mob. We think we should set a trap for them.”
“The mob? You guys gonna take on the Cosa Nostra? That’s a good idea.”
The kids stared at him, and he recognized the accusation in their silence.
“How you going to do that?” he substituted, now genuinely intrigued.
“We don’t know yet,” Justin said.
“We need more information,” Marcus added, very coolly, McClellan thought, considering there was no way he could think of to get information in this situation without risking imprisonment, broken kneecaps, or death.
He said as much, but the boys still seemed unfazed, said they’d get back to him shortly, remembering to thank him several times for all his help. What help?
Two days passed without anything much happening, though the boys seemed to be gaining assurance as fast as their adult advisor was losing his.
Then the phone call came, as good luck would have it, when they were both there at Marcus’ house, alone, plotting.
Silence. Marcus, hand covering the receiver, said to Justin, “It’s him.”
“Tell him you know it’s him.”
“Listen, I know it’s you.”
“What do you mean? Who do you think this is?” The voice on the other end, surprisingly high-pitched, seemed uncertain, nervous. That was good.
“You want your money. We know that.”
“What money? Who’s we?”
“We’re here alone, so you don’t need to pretend, right Justin?”
Justin hissed, “Tell him my name, why don’t you!”
Marcus hurried to make matters better. “And my name’s Marcus.”
“I think I have the wrong number.”
“No you don’t. You want your money, and we’re right about that.”
“Let’s meet and talk about this, OK?”
“You want your money, you better meet us”–long pause–“or you’re never going to get it, not a dime.”
“You kids know who you’re dealing with?”
“No. What’s your name? We told you ours.”
“Mother of God. OK, kid, you got me. Mine’s Montague.”
“Hi, Montague. Now, you’d better meet us, you’d just fucking better.”
There was a muffled noise on the other end, sounded like a laugh almost.
“Will I be safe?”
Marcus looked at Justin, who was sharing the earphone but not, until now, speaking.
“You might be. We might be. None of us might be. That’s why we meet, see.”
“I don’t know what the fuck that means, but OK, how about right there in your backyard, that restaurant called ‘The Only Place in Town.’ How about that?”
Marcus looked at Justin: “You know where we live?”
“Somehow I do.”
“Oh. Never mind. We decided we’d meet you at Venice Beach.”
“What? Where’s that?”
“You can ask somebody.”
“Venice Beach. Jesus, kids. I’m not much for beaches. You got some reason for this?”
“Just do it,” said Justin, breaking in. “We’ll meet you outside the show with the two-headed rattlesnake and the bearded lady.”
“A freak show?”
“They don’t call them that. They’re entertainers, not freaks.”
“I call them freaks. You kids freaks too? That how I’ll spot you?”
“We’ll spot you. What will you be wearing?”
“A carnation in my buttonhole. Before your time. A Dodgers ball cap.”
“Too many of those.”
“Shit. OK. A Hawaiian shirt, bright blue.”
“What’s your name? You know ours.”
“Betsy Ross. I wrote the Star Spangled Banner.”
“No she didn’t. That was. . . .”
“Not much of a sense of humor, kid. So when, what time we meeting?”
“Saturday. 1 o’clock. We’ll go for a beach walk.”
“Bullshit. I haven’t been on a beach in thirty years, and I’m not. . . .”
“You want your money, you’ll do as we say.”
The tone was no longer nervous. “You start giving orders, kids, you’re going to find out who you’re up against.”
Marcus started to say something apologetic but Justin broke in, “No need for that. We’ll see you Saturday. You’ll be able to identify us pretty easy.”
“I can do that now.”
That last would have been frightening, had not both boys figured right away it was meant to be frightening and just didn’t matter. As long as they had the money, they had control. Maybe.
They had arrived at the same point without much talking back and forth, confident that they had the upper hand, were engineering a plan, more exactly, a “trap.” That had been the word all along. It wasn’t the only thing bolstering them, but it gave them a story they could live inside, a plot with an ending that might be unclear but that promised to be satisfactory.
It hadn’t started to wobble, just yet, but their story seemed in danger of receding, slipping round the corner. Time to strengthen it, bring it back into focus.
“I know, Marcus. What exactly do we do now?”
“First thing is to stay in control.”
“Right. We know where the money is. They don’t.”
“You think it’s ‘they’ and not ‘he’?”
“OK, no matter. We need to get them to commit, right?”
“Right, Marcus. They’re the ones feeling time pressure. We can let the money sit as long as we want. They can’t. That much money must belong somewhere, be owed to someone, someone who isn’t going to wait long.”
“Exactly. So we play along, pretend to be ready to give them the money, see how desperate they are, what they’re willing to do.”
“We know they’ll say they’re going to kill us, but why would they do that? They’d never get the money then.”
“What if they go after Mr. M, Justin, or our families, or maybe cut off our fingers?”
“We have to make them believe they don’t need to, that we’re just scared kids wanting an out. Make them think they have us trapped; that way we can trap them.”
“I know what.”
“All we need to do is tell them we have instructions on where to find the money hidden away in our school lockers or some such place, so if anything happens to us or Mr. M or our families, they won’t get anything.”
They had no trouble recognizing one another. Marcus and Justin were the only kids hanging outside the sideshow, and Montague looked just the way a mobster should: loud Hawaiian shirt, a hat suitable for anywhere but the beach, oxford shoes with black socks, and shorts that at one time were probably called Bermuda. His face looked as if it’d been used for drag racing, and his stomach was so out of proportion to everything else about him it seemed prosthetic.
The kids spotted him first, or at least were the ones making the approach. Montague scowled a really good scowl and then smiled. But he remained mute.
“We’re Justin and Marcus from the phone. You the guy wants the money?” said Justin, not in a whisper.
“Fucking Christ,” said Montague, “shut up, shut the fuck up. Why don’t you just carry a sign, ‘Illegal shit going down?’ Where can we go to talk? And shut the fuck up till we get there.”
Marcus was thinking of other things. “Glad you could find us. Guess you had no trouble finding the sideshow.”
“Matter of fact, I did. This whole place is a freak show. You see that guy on roller skates and a guitar with a fucking python or something around his neck? Damned near ran into me, said he hoped I had a happy, hugging day. No shit.”
Justin seemed amused: “And you said, let me guess, ‘Fuck off.’”
Montague studied him: “I didn’t hug him.”
“It was the python,” Marcus said. “Otherwise, you’d have hugged him.”
Justin looked a little alarmed, but Montague only rolled his eyes.
“OK,” so where do we go to talk, as I asked half an hour ago?”
“Just cross over the bike path behind us. Be careful about the bikes and roller-bladers. We can take a walk on the beach.”
“Fuck that. I told you, I ain’t been on a beach since I was ten, and I ain’t. . . .”
“You haven’t walked on a beach?” Marcus asked.
“Not exactly where my line of work gets done, kid.”
“You been here to Venice Beach before, though, right? Not to the beach part but to the boardwalk?”
“Why you asking? No I ain’t. Actually enjoyed it. That black comedian over there, he’s pretty fucking funny. Passed the hat and said put something in, since at least I’m here and not robbing your house. That’s good.”
“You give him some money?”
“Why you care? Yeah, I did, a twenty. He wanted me to be in his act, but I backed off that, you can bet your ass.”
“You probably don’t want to be recognized.”
He looked at one kid and then the other, seemed to be thinking of some kind of violence, then shrugged, “Like the FBI is here, right.”
“Or the rival mob.”
Now he for sure wasn’t smiling, “What do you know about rival mobs?”
“Don’t get touchy,” Justin said, “We ain’t as dumb as we look.”
Montague looked startled, then actually giggled. “OK, you got me. No way I can fool you two birds. Let’s go torture our feet in that fucking sand.”
They crossed the path, got to the as-always-uncrowded beach and strolled maybe half a mile without talking.
“You kids come here a lot?”
“We do when we can. We live about an hour away, so not as often as we’d like.”
“You go swimming?”
“Swimming with the fishes, you mean?” said Marcus, giggling.
He didn’t say anything.
“Well,” Justin said, “Marcus was just giving you shit. We do go swimming here, like most kids.”
“Yeah,” Montague said, “like most kids.”
The silence and the walk extended for some time.
“You could go with us sometime,” Justin finally said, then immediately felt stupid, knowing that’d sound sarcastic and would bring down on both of them some murderous action.
Montague didn’t look up, said nothing. More silent plodding.
Finally, Marcus could take it no longer. “We going to talk about the money and whether you’re going to torture us?”
Now Montague did look up.
“I been thinking, kids. Here’s what I think.” He checked around to see nobody was close, then made a motion as if to grab the boys, pulling back almost as soon as he started. “Sorry. I was going to check and see if you was wired, but I can see you can’t be, wearing that next-to-nothing you got on.”
Both kids seemed a little embarrassed, a point Montague noticed. “That’s OK.”
He was quiet again. They’d reached a jetty, not far from a long dock and had stopped.
Finally, “I’ll tell you what. I shouldn’t say this, but I’m clearing out of my organization, going where I might have a beach nearby. Anyhow, I just want to keep moving. You figured, you smart guys, that I’m not from around here.”
He paused for a minute but clearly didn’t want a response. Then, “There’s $970,000 there, right? Don’t answer. I know that’s it and I know you wouldn’t take any or lie to me. So let’s cut the part where I threaten you,” here he smiled broadly, “set you to swimming with the fishes. How about we split the money ten-to-one, gives you some and me a lot. But I’m the one who earned it– or got it. Right? No questions asked. You can set yours aside for later on, college, I suppose.”
He paused again and looked at them more closely. “Go to college, boys. Wish I had. I know college about as well as I do beaches.”
Justin and Marcus spoke almost at once, “We really don’t need that much, and you might, off on your desert island.”
He brought back his scowl. “If it’s a desert island, stupid, what would I spend it on?”
Neither kid could think of what to say. Finally, Justin said, “Are there any desert islands left?”
“Fuck if I know, kid. I didn’t really mean that. I got plans, though.”
“Can we help?”
“Thanks, kids. You can help by forgetting all about this.”
“Best way for us to do that,” Marcus said, “is to not take any money. We have no way to explain how we got all that dough anyhow.”
Montague looked worried, then: “I know. You gotta have a batty aunt or grandma, everybody does. You can figure a way to convince them it’s theirs and they want to leave it to you. Make sure they’re old–or maybe sick as hell, so you don’t have to wait too long.”
The kids looked puzzled, way out of their depth.
Montague was reassuring, “Hell, that’d work.”
There didn’t seem any way out. They looked at one another, agreed, trying to imagine the batty-aunt plot working.
Montague gave them a look that was hard to decipher. Then continued, “So, same time tomorrow, only let’s start not at the freaks but here, right here.”
They had talked that night about various plans, but they knew there was only one plan, giving the money back. They thought about asking Montague just to take the whole thing. But they knew he wouldn’t.
Next day, there was no talk to speak of, just handing off the loot, as Justin said, making sure no dicks were around.
Montague took the bag but didn’t leave right away, seemed as if he wanted to say something but didn’t know what.
It was Marcus who spoke. “Let’s go swimming some time. Just come by or call, tell us which desert island or, you know, mob hangout.”
Montague looked at them, turned and scuffed slowly through the sand.
“Think he’ll call us, Justin?”
“You crazy? Maybe he is, though.”